Patience, John Coates (Persephone). I keep having to remind myself that this isn’t by John Cournos, which isn’t fair because I can’t imagine that the author of this book is anything at all like Cournos. Patience is a good, submissive Catholic wife with three young children and another probably on the way, who discovers that her husband is cheating on her, and then falls suddenly herself for another man, in the course of which she discovers her own sexual desire, the existence of the female orgasm (in both theory and practice) and that sex does not have to involve lying back and thinking of the vegetables for tomorrow’s dinner. Disaster ought to happen, but it doesn’t because Patience is lovely and deserves nice things and the book lets her have them. It is very funny and a masterclass in how writers could be really quite explicit without saying something that would get them censored. Patience’s discovery of what fun it is to be a bad wife and a bitch, turning the tables on her pompous selfish husband and her overbearing brother, is absolutely delightful. It’s quite a serious, even angry book beneath the fun: I wonder very much how Coates came to write it. Also, it is the only place I have found the word "bedworthy" outside Dorothy L Sayers' letters.
The Exiles Return. Elisabeth de Waal (Persephone). One for azdak, this is a story of three people returning to Austria in the mid-50s, having left before WWII. Dr Adler is a middle-aged Jewish doctor and scientist, returning to his old lab, Resi the daughter of a Princess who married a Dane and moved to America in the early 30s, and Kanakis the son of an influential Austrian Greek family, now a wealthy New Yorker, also looking to indulge himself in Vienna. It’s a slightly odd book. The prose is often beautiful, but the author’s belief that it wasn’t published in her lifetime because it was too delicate and subtle to be understood (to paraphrase – my copy is currently lent), this, unfortunately, isn’t true. I strongly suspect that the reason it wasn’t published is that the structure is a bit of a dog’s breakfast. The problem is that there are two very separate stories, and the link between them is so tenuous as to be ineffectual. One story is that of Dr Kuno Adler, returning from a New York where he has never felt at home, abandoning the wife and daughters from whom he has become alienated, and trying to see if he can re-discover his life again in Vienna. It’s an interesting and serious story and well-told, and there is a great scene in which he (inadvertently) confronts the Nazi past of the man who is now his boss. I would very happily read an entire book about Adler. Unfortunately he gets less than half of one as de Waal passes on to another story, clearly the one she found more exciting, of decadence in high life and the ruin of a young woman by the corrupt and immoral rich. The individual characters of this plot are generally well-drawn (except when the plot requires them to be suddenly out of character), but ultimately the plot is melodramatic and unconvincing, while quite allowed to let rip enough to be exciting. I’d read a whole novel on this plot, too, but it would be better written by someone else.
Thief of Time, Terry Pratchett. I am continuing a re-read/catch-up of middle-period Pratchett. This is one I’d never previously read at all. It isn’t destined to become a favourite, but it was a lot of fun.
The West End Front, Matthew Sweet. A history of London’s luxury hotels, and particularly their inhabitants, during WWII, this was fascinating. Sweet is very good at telling a story, and the book is eminently readable. There’s a certain amount of focus on characters and drama, and rather less on logistics, but it was an entertaining look at a world I knew very little about. Please don’t let Julian Fellowes base a drama on it.
Iron Sky, the space Nazis from the moon one. It’s about Nazis from the dark side of the moon invading earth in 2018, an earth on which Sarah Palin is the president of the USA. It’s not going to be deep. Surprisingly, however, it was really a pretty good film made with a remarkable lack of self-indulgence. It’s 90 minutes and not longer than it needs to be, the script is decent, the acting good, the special effects astounding for a budget of €7,5000,000, and it is very funny. A lot of the humour comes from the element of preposterousness, and I wonder how that would hold up to a second viewing, and the other half is of the Airplane/Hot Shots/Naked Gun genre with lots of shout outs, including the inevitable Downfall sketch. There’s nothing particularly deep about it, it’s basically a well-made B movie, but there’s some rather more thought-provoking elements than one might have expected among the facile comparisons of Nazism and present-day politics, with some good jabs at contemporary politics’ obsession with image above ideology. When the moon Nazi protagonists find themselves working for Palin’s election campaign it isn’t because they really believe the same things she does, but because their propaganda is similarly contentless. Who doesn’t approve of a message of peace and love? Apart from the people giving it, obviously.
Oh, and it passes the Bechdel test with ease, with three female main characters who often talk to one another, and what has to be a costume shout-out to Servalan.
Storyville, K2: The Killer Summit Also released as The Summit. The BBC has been showing a number of mountain climbing related films this year, and I taped this one a few weeks ago. It’s an account of a disastrous 2008 summit attempt on K2 in which 11 climbers died over the course of a couple of days, largely falling ice. The film unfolds the sequence of events, piecing together survivors’ accounts and footage, with reconstructed sections, in an attempt to explain what happened to the people involved. I thought it was a mixed success. I found the reconstructions distracting and would have preferred use of original footage of the climbers only, with more use of stills, maps, and other means of making sense of the landscape in which events unfurled. I’d also have liked more analysis of how things went wrong. Obviously, the weather/conditions were a huge factor – the best decision-making in the world can’t help you when you get swept off the mountain by a chunk of falling ice – but the human element was also critical. As it was, I felt there was too much emphasis on a couple of individual decisions that went wrong and not enough of the broader context which is that a whole bunch of experts made successive poor choices, and how and why that happens in these sorts of situations (the answer not being simply “hypoxia”).